Appreciating Humanitarian Action
May 11, 2020
By : Angelo Trias
Kinds of Aid
If you had all the time and resources, what problem of humanity would you solve and how? I bet you’re thinking of grand thoughts and interesting ideas. Good news: There are lots of ways students like you can give back!
Schools have outreach activities, communities have relief drives, and faith groups have charity events. But humanitarian action is different from other kinds of aid because it is organized, principled and does no harm.
Not all efforts that promote human welfare are the same as humanitarian action. Being humanitarian requires much more than just an ability to give and a willingness to help. Are you curious to understand why this is so?
The ‘How’ Matters
Remember the time when you said something but it was taken differently? Maybe it was the tone of your voice or the overuse of exclamation points. We learn from experience that how we do things matters.
The same thing goes for humanitarian action. You see, not all those who assist the needy are recognized as humanitarian actors. Not all acts of kindness are considered as humanitarian assistance either.
For the humanitarian community, the term ‘humanitarian’ only refers to actors and activities guided by humanitarian principles. Do you know what are the principles that define humanitarian action?
If you are unsure how to support conflict or disaster-affected communities, seek out organizations whose work is rooted in the four principles. There is a greater possibility that your help will reach those who need it the most.
The main principle of humanitarian work is humanity. Humanitarian action should address human suffering wherever it is found (we know suffering when we see it) to protect life and preserve dignity.
To do so requires impartiality so that humanitarian assistance can be given to anyone who needs it—regardless of one’s class, gender, political opinion, nationality, race, and religious beliefs.
Similarly, humanitarian actors are expected to keep their neutrality in the conduct of their work. They shouldn’t get involved in disputes or take sides so they can focus on those who urgently need relief.
Finally, humanitarians must have operational independence so they can effectively deliver aid with minimum constraints. So their actions must be free from other political, military, and economic agendas.
It shouldn’t be so difficult to put these four into practice, right? Well, the simplest things are often the hardest to do. This does not even include codes of conduct and core standards expected of humanitarians.
To Whose Benefit?
Have you ever questioned whether humanitarian assistance is benefiting the needy or leaving them in a worse-off state? Understanding what ‘do no harm’ means will help you identify which efforts serve the affected communities and decide which humanitarian action to support.
Remember a time when you wanted to do something nice but ended messing things up? That’s because every action has a consequence. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always create good results. Right?
Let’s say communities were evacuated because a volcano nearby erupted. You wanted to help so you gathered and dropped-off used clothes. You think, “Someone will benefit from this.” All is well, right? It depends.
The clothes you donated may be inappropriate and may not be of use at the time (I’ve seen cocktail dresses and high heels sent to evacuation centers). It ends eating up storage space, wasting gas for delivery, and disrupting humanitarian work. This is still a common problem faced today.
To avoid something similar from happening, humanitarians take extra effort to ‘do no harm’. It is their task to examine the unintended consequences of aid, and make sure that any negative effects are kept at a minimum.
For instance, humanitarians have to be careful not to offer assistance longer than necessary. They should also avoid building temporary shelters resembling fancy hotels.
Doing so might make evacuees reliant on relief—losing their ability to stand on their own feet. It could also make them used to standards of living that are not sustainable in local settings. Do you get the picture?
This becomes more complicated in armed conflict because aid can be a source of tension when there’s active competition for resources. It can deepen divisions in a community and make the situation worse than it was.
What It Takes
Now that you know what humanitarian action takes, you now have a better appreciation of how humanitarians work. The next time you decide to contribute to a cause, challenge yourself! Pause and ask, “Am I supporting organizations and activities that put the affected communities at the heart of their decisions and actions?”
Up next: Interested in learning more about humanitarian work? Stay tuned, we have something for you! In the next article, we will look into student volunteering and interesting ways to ‘learn by doing’.
Want to learn more about Disaster Risk Reduction and Management (DRRM)? Thinking of starting a career in Humanitarian Affairs? Or are you seeking personal development in this field? The General Academic Strand (GAS) strand offers Disaster Readiness and Risk Reduction as a core subject for Senior High School students.
Donini, A. “Humanitarianism in the 21st Century”. Revue Humanitaire, vol. 25, June 2010.
Anderson, M. “Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace-or War”. Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1999.
Slim, H. “Doing the right thing: relief agencies, moral dilemmas and moral responsibility in political emergencies and war”. Disasters, vol. 21, no. 3, September 1997, pp. 244-257.
UNOHCA. OCHA on Message: Humanitarian Principles. UNOCHA, 2012.
UNOCHA. UN-CM Coord Handbook. Version 2, UNOCHA, 2018.
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